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  • Writer's pictureDahlia Foundation

Military attack leaves Myanmar’s displaced civilians with ‘no safe place’


On the night of October 9, Seng Mai was awoken by a deafening explosion that tore apart her shelter in Mung Lai Hkyet, a camp for conflict-displaced people in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State.

“The sound was so loud that I wondered whether I had even survived,” the 21-year-old told Al Jazeera.


As rounds of mortar fire thundered from the direction of a nearby military post, she crawled into a makeshift trench.

“A grandmother was crying and shouting for help. My mother was running barefoot,” she said. “Children were also running in the dark, struggling to reach a safe place.”

By the time the bombardment was over, 28 civilians including 12 children had been killed and dozens of shelters as well as a kindergarten and church were destroyed. Rights groups have blamed the military, which seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 and has so far denied responsibility for the attack.

It has an extensive record of targeting civilians and civilian areas, however, and its actions have only become “increasingly brazen” since the coup, according to a United Nations-appointed investigative mechanism. In August, the mechanism announced that it had found “compelling evidence” that the military had committed “more frequent and audacious war crimes and crimes against humanity”.

Bolstering this claim, a report published by the UN’s human rights office last month found that the military had killed at least 3,800 civilians, destroyed nearly 75,000 civilian properties and conducted nearly 1,000 air strikes in the more than two and a half years since the coup.

“Emboldened by confidence in impunity, military actions have grown in intensity and brutality,” said the report. “A seemingly endless spiral of military violence has engulfed all aspects of life in Myanmar.”


The recent attack on Mung Lai Hkyet targeted civilians displaced by war since 2011.

Several Kachin internally displaced youth, three of whom witnessed the Mung Lai Hkyet attack, told Al Jazeera the incident had left them traumatised and afraid. It also reinforced their sense that they had nowhere safe to run.


“I want to sleep at night but I can’t because I keep recalling the attack. I feel fearful and anxious about what might happen, while also recalling the terrible and tragic experiences that I’ve been through,” said Seng Mai, who has lived in Mung Lai Hkyet since 2011. “Since I became an IDP [internally displaced person], there have been many long and sleepless nights.”

Al Jazeera has given Seng Mai and others interviewed pseudonyms due to the risk of military retaliation.

‘No safe place’

Like many ethnic minorities in Myanmar, Kachin people were targets of the military’s human rights abuses long before the coup. The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), one of more than a dozen ethnic armed groups along the country’s borders, began its struggle for autonomy in 1961 and ever since, the military has attempted to cut its access to food, funds, intelligence and recruits in a strategy known as “four cuts.”

The approach, which specifically targets civilians, has only added fuel to the Kachin resistance, which entered a new phase with the collapse of a 17-year-long ceasefire in 2011. The fighting that followed displaced some 100,000 people, most of whom fled to camps. With the military criminalising affiliation with or support to the KIO under its Unlawful Associations Act, more than a third took refuge in KIO territory along Myanmar’s eastern border with China.

Htu Raw, who is using a pseudonym, recalled hearing the fighting break out from the state capital of Myitkyina, where she was boarding at the time to attend high school. Her family soon fled their village but she only found out two years later when she finished school and her mother came to pick her up.

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